THE RIVERSIDE CITY and County Public Library will be celebrating its centennial next year and has sent me a questionnaire.
"We invite you to join our celebration by sharing your experiences with public libraries and with books."
Filling out a questionnaire about one's reading habits is like answering tests in magazines that purport to reveal the inadequacies of one's ego, sex life, moral sense or whatever.
One is, in a sense, what one has read, and there are few of us, I suspect, who would care to disclose the inadequacies of their reading background.
There are a great many classic books that we each assume, as a matter of courtesy, the other has read, when, in fact, the classics remain largely unread in our society. Who has time for "The Merchant of Venice" when we have "L.A. Law?"; who wants to curl up with "Pride and Prejudice" when we have "The Dating Game?"
However, I owe much to public libraries, and I don't mind baring my soul for one that has been educating its community for 100 years.
First question: "What are you reading today? What have you read most recently?"
I am still plugging away at Dumas Malone's six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson. It goes slowly. I have at last begun Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," but to tell the truth I do not expect to finish it in this lifetime. It is charming, reflective, nostalgic, but it is not, as the critics say, "compelling."
I have to admit that since I started Thomas Jefferson I have read two novels by Robert B. Parker, who writes the Spenser detective series, and two by Elmore Leonard, author of "Stick." I admit I was reading two of them for the second time. They are compelling.
In science, I am reading "Ever Since Darwin," by Stephen J. Gould, which helps me in my dialectic with the so-called Scientific Creationists, and "The Roving Mind," a collection of essays by the ever-provocative Isaac Asimov.
Second question: "Other than the Bible, which is in a class by itself, what book has most influenced your life and / or your career and how?"
I have not read the Bible in its entirety, but I certainly wish I had written it. I'd be richer than Sidney Sheldon. Whether one reads the Bible or not, its influence is pervasive, as the question suggests. Our lives are saturated with its language, its moral concepts, its history and its parables.
Aside from the Bible, the book that probably influenced me most was "Andy the Acrobat." I read it when I was 10 years old. It was the first full-length book I had read, and I was astonished and inspired by the author's language and narrative power. I forget his name.
On a higher level, I also read at about that time "A Child's History of England," which led me into more of Kipling and gave me my lifelong bias toward everything English. Well, almost everything.
Third question: "What do you read for enjoyment?"
Everything. The paper. Magazines. Cereal boxes. Suspense novels. The Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Next question: "When I think of a public library, I think of . . . ."
Of the Whittier public library. Of the Vermont Square branch, which I used after school. Of the downtown Los Angeles library, where I got most of my education in the 1930s. Of the Pasadena library, which I use today.
Next question: "My fondest memory of the public library is . . . ."
My nocturnal visits to the Whittier public library on school nights. Since I was not allowed out on school nights except for educational purposes, I went to the Whittier library on the pretext of studying, but I really went to meet girls.
That is the same reason I went to Christian Endeavor meetings on Sunday evenings at the Whittier Friends Church, a practice that accounts almost entirely for what Christian education I have.
Last question: "When did you first started using the public library?"
I believe the first library I went to alone was the Vermont Square library, which still stands and is still serving the neighborhood at 48th Street and Budlong Avenue, near USC. We lived two blocks away in a Craftsman house on Budlong, with large, glazed orange pots on the porch. The library stands in a small, quiet park. At least it was quiet then.
I was a new boy in the neighborhood and had no playmates. Thus I went to the library after school and read fairy tales, instead of learning how to play mumbletypeg. To this day I believe in fairy tales.
By the way, I am still plugging away at "The Story of Civilization," by Will and Ariel Durant.
Will could always write faster than I could read.